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May 1, 2013

The Lineup Card

10 Players We Wish Had Stayed Healthy

by Baseball Prospectus

​1. Terry Francona
Indians manager Terry Francona often makes self-deprecating jokes about his career as a major-league player, and the numbers bear out the fact that he was, to put it kindly, mediocre in his 10 seasons with five clubs. He had a .274/.300/.351 triple-slash line with just 16 home runs in 1,827 plate appearances. However, things could have turned out differently if Francona hadn’t suffered severe knee injuries in 1982 and 1984 while playing for the Expos. He was leading the National League in hitting both times.

Francona also entered professional baseball with a good pedigree. He was the Cubs’ second-round draft pick in 1977 following his senior year of high school in New Brighton, Pennsylvania, but opted to play college baseball at Arizona. In 1980, he won the Golden Spikes Award as the nation’s best player and led the Wildcats to the College World Series title, capturing series Most Valuable Player honors in the process. The Expos made him their first-round draft pick that June.

While Francona will always be remembered as the manager who led the Red Sox to World Series championships in 2004 and 2007, those who saw him play as an amateur will always think about what might have been. —John Perrotto

2. Ryan Westmoreland
It's a no ordinary progression to go from future superstar at 19 years old to retired at 22 years old, but then again, there was never anything ordinary about Ryan Westmoreland. One of the best baseball players the state of Rhode Island has ever produced, Westmoreland was both the state's best position player and pitcher his senior year of high school (he had a 0.45 ERA and threw a 19-strikeout perfect game). The Red Sox took him in the fifth round of the 2008 draft but gave him a staggering $2 million bonus to sign. He made his debut in 2009 as a teenager in the New York-Penn League and hit .296/.401/.484 with seven homers and 19 steals in just 60 games.

After that, he was the talk of the Red Sox' farm system; Kevin Goldstein ranked him as the 14th-best prospect in the game prior to 2010. In his Red Sox Top 11 list, Goldstein wrote: "One scout described Westmoreland as having 'the tools of a top-five high school pick, with the advanced skills of a college player.' Supremely athletic, Westmoreland has average power with projection for more, as well as a keen understanding of the strike zone and a silky smooth swing with some natural lift to it. He's an outstanding runner with instincts, as indicated by his 19 stolen bases in 60 games for the Spinners without getting caught." I also remember listening to a Baseball America podcast when their Top 100 came out that preseason (he was No. 21 there). Jim Callis was asked who he liked to be the No. 1 prospect for 2011. His answer? Ryan Westmoreland.

The rest of his story is pretty well-known at this point. Those 60 games he played in the NYPL would be the only professional games of his career, as he was diagnosed with a cavernous malformation in his brain, requiring immediate and potentially life-threatening surgery. The surgery was a success, and Westmoreland continued to march on with his dream of playing in the major leagues. Unfortunately, while he was making great strides on his journey to living a full and normal life, the baseball side of the equation was proving a more difficult challenge. After a setback and a second brain surgery last July, Westmoreland's baseball career was over, and he officially retired from the game this March.

Ultimately, Westmoreland's story is one about hope, strength and determination. Despite being dealt an incredibly unfair hand, he has remained staggeringly positive and has served as an inspiration to many (both within the game and outside of it), including myself. It's just difficult, as someone who loves the game of baseball, to not feel like we were all robbed of getting the chance to watch this potential superstar patrol center field at Fenway. In a parallel universe somewhere, he’s discussed as one of the best young players in the league today. —Bret Sayre

3. Dizzy Dean
Of all the pitchers who are in the Hall of Fame for being great starting pitchers—Candy Cummings doesn’t count—none has fewer wins than Ol’ Diz. His 150 career W’s are half of what has generally been held as the magic number for starters (granting the lower bar of yesteryear, of course). Dean won 82 of those games in a mere three-season stretch from 1934-36 as part of the St. Louis Cardinals’ Gashouse Gang, winning an MVP Award in the first, at age 24, and finishing second in the other two. But then, pitching in the 1937 All-Star game, Dean had his toe broken by a line drive off the bat of another future Hall of Famer, Earl Averill. The story goes that he changed his delivery after that in order to avoid landing on the toe, resulting in a shoulder injury that augured the rapid end of Dean’s career. He was essentially done two seasons later.

Had Dean stayed healthy, it’s quite tempting to think that he would have doubled his win total and, perhaps, been remembered as one of the very greatest pitchers of all time. That’s a rash claim, perhaps, but as he himself once put it, “It ain’t bragging if ya can back it up!” Unfortunately, we never got to find out if he could. Dean probably helped his case for the Hall with his color (and colorful) commentary in the broadcast booth after he retired, and if he didn’t rack up those 150 extra wins, at least he gave us a new preterit verb when he exclaimed, “He slud into third!” —Adam Sobsey

4. Kal Daniels
The list of players with a .400 OBP and .500 SLG through their age-26 campaign (minimum 1,500 plate appearances) is short. It contains 25 names, of which 14 are in the Hall of Fame.

Kal Daniels came up with the Reds in 1986 and for 5 years hit like what we today might call a cross between Joey Votto and Lance Berkman with speed:

Player

Years

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS+

HR

SB

Kal Daniels

1986-1990

1970

.300

.402

.514

151

81

81

Joey Votto

2007-2010

1870

.314

.401

.557

150

90

28

Lance Berkman

1999-2002

1903

.304

.406

.578

145

101

26

Here's what Bill James said in his 1988 Baseball Abstract after Daniels' first full big-league season:

I may be a minority of one, but I like this kid better than Eric Davis. Kal Daniels just might be the best hitter of the 1990s.

Daniels will never become the defensive player that Eric Davis is, and last year had a lot of trouble with left-handed pitching. But as a hitter, he's got it.

Daniels improved against southpaws in 1988, and although his overall numbers were down, he led the National League in OBP. The following season saw him limited to 55 games due to injury, and he was traded to the Dodgers in July. From The Scouting Report: 1990:

Five knee operations during the last two seasons have taken their toll on Daniels. But Daniels has good speed, despite his leg problems, and has the ability to steal bases.

If Daniels stays healthy (which he hasn't been able to do in his four big league seasons), sheds his moody attitude and plays with a little more intensity, he could become one of the best players in baseball. He's a potential batting champ.

He rebounded with a strong (.296/.389/.531 with 27 homers) showing in 1990 but faded badly in 1991. Daniels played in just 83 games the following year, hitting a career-worst .241/.315/.377 while being traded to the Cubs midseason.

Daniels was released after the season and never played again. His final game came one month after his 29th birthday. He finished his career with an OBP higher than Hank Aaron's and a SLG higher than Eddie Murray's. —Geoff Young

5. Rocco Baldelli
At age 31, Rocco Baldelli should theoretically be entering the final few years of his prime as a baseball player. Instead, the 2013 campaign marks Baldelli’s third full season of retirement, and he logged more than 100 big-league games just twice in his career––his first two years.

As a 21-year-old rookie in 2003, the former sixth overall pick put his tools on display by posting a .289/.326/.416 slash line with 27 stolen bases. But many believed Baldelli was only scratching the surface of his enormous potential. The late legendary Al Lamacchia, who spent more than six decades scouting for five organizations, once compared Baldelli’s skill set to that of a young Joe DiMaggio, referring to him as “Joe’s twin.”

After showing slight improvement in 2004, Baldelli was sidelined for the entire 2005 season after undergoing both ACL and Tommy John surgeries. He made a strong rebound the following year, hitting .302/.339/.533 in 92 games.

Unfortunately, the half-season stint in ’06 was the last we’d ever see of the true Rocco Baldelli, and it wasn’t necessarily his fault. The Rhode Island native couldn’t stay healthy because of his well-documented mitochondrial disorder that made recovery from minor nicks virtually impossible. To his credit, Baldelli hung on until 2010, but he was rarely healthy, and his once massive raw talent was difficult to see.

If nothing else, it’s disappointing that Baldelli wasn’t able to experience the Rays’ turn from perennial doormat to yearly contender from center field; instead, he did so from the trainer’s room. Tampa Bay lost 90-plus games in all three of his “full” big-league seasons. While he made the occasional cameo––and even hit a pair of post-season home runs in ’08––it’ll always feel like he should have been a cornerstone piece to those first successful Rays clubs. —Jason Cole

6. Herb Score
Herb Score was a phenom. The 1955 Rookie of the Year burst onto the scene with an electric fastball and a strikeout rate that no one had ever seen before. In 1955, Herb Score struck out 9.7 batters for every nine innings he pitched. As a rookie. To put that in some perspective, up to that point, the best seasons that any starter had put together on that stat were Hal Newhouser and Bob Feller, both at 8.4 in 1946. Score wasn't just young and incrementally better. This was a new level of magnitude. In 1956, he followed it up with a 9.5 mark, and it looked like the Cleveland Indians were developing an exciting new young core of players, including Rocky Colvavito and Roger Maris (yeah, him). But in 1957, Score was facing the Yankees' Gil McDougald when McDougald lined a ball right back at Score, shattering several bones in his face and eye. Score was never the same afterward. Neither were the Indians.

In a tribute to Score's classiness, he never had an unkind word for McDougald (who was, Score figured, just trying to get a hit. McDougald, for his part, rushed out to the mound rather than to first base to try to assist Score). Herb Score did return after a while, but eventually developed elbow troubles and then retired. If you've lived in Cleveland, you know that he had a second act as the radio voice of the Indians for the better part of four decades. But what if Score had stayed healthy as a pitcher? Score had his flaws (a high walk rate being one of them), but as a strikeout artist, he could have put up numbers rivaling Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton, and done it 10-15 years earlier in an environment that wasn't as strikeout-happy. And maybe the Indians would have emerged from the late '50s as a contender, rather than slumping into the '60s and '70s. And maybe the Cleveland sports narrative might have read a little different over the years. —Russell A. Carleton

7. Mark Prior
He was still just 22 and had only played a partial season in the major leagues, yet Chicago’s manager let him go well over 200 innings. Borderline criminal, right?

Except Mark Buehrle would be fine, it turns out. He would be as fine as a pitcher possibly could be. After that 2001 season with 221 1/3 innings pitched, he’d go over 230 innings the next four years and has still never set foot on the disabled list.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it worked out for the other guy to whom the first sentence applies. Mark Prior, he of the supposedly perfect mechanics and such, was the best pitcher in baseball at age 22, helping the Cubs into the postseason and following his 2.43 ERA with a 2.31 in October. Now he hasn’t pitched in the majors in seven years and is spending 2013 in the bullpen of the Louisville Bats (the Reds’ Triple-A affiliate). He generally goes into this conversation as part of a two-horse entry with Kerry Wood, yet Wood got this moment in 2012. Here’s hoping for the same for Prior some day. —Zachary Levine

8. Rick Ankiel
There are many what-might-have-beens scattered through the winds of baseball history. These are the players who the fates decided were not going to reach the heights it seemed were easily within their grasp. Rick Ankiel may not be the biggest what-if story, but he’s definitely on the list. In 1999, Ankiel made his major-league debut for the Cardinals at the age of 19 by striking out 39 hitters in 33 innings. The next season—he was 20!—he threw 175 innings and struck out 194 (an even 10 K/9). Somehow he lost the Rookie of the Year voting to Rafael Furcal. Ankiel was an ace in the making, a top-of-the-rotation guy for the next decade-plus.

Then came the end. Ankiel was picked to start Game One of the 2000 National League Division Series against the Braves. In just 2 2/3 innings, Ankiel walked six batters and threw five wild pitches. He was removed as much for the safety of the opposing batter as for his ineffectiveness. Further gory details I leave to you to look up (you can read more about it here, here, and here if you like), but the results of that game destroyed Ankiel’s career as a pitcher. Oddly, the Cardinals ended up winning the game despite the meltdown, but it was a pyrrhic victory. Ankiel was never the same pitcher. He was a mess in 2001; Ankiel walked 25 in 24 innings, gave up seven homers, and was generally ineffective. That was it for Ankiel as a major-league starting pitcher. St. Louis’ ace for the next decade was gone.

If you’re reading this, you likely know that he went down to the minors for two seasons and remade himself as a hitter. While that stands as a testament to his will and athletic abilities, as we smile and applaud, we’re left wondering what might have been if the 20-year-old with the killer fastball hadn’t inexplicably lost all his control, all his confidence, and all his promise one warm day in early October. —Matthew Kory

9. Carl Pavano
Reliving the horror experience of Carl Pavano was almost enough of a deterrent from me writing this thing altogether.

It really began with Game Four of the 2003 World Series, when Pavano held the Yankees to one run in eight innings and helped his Marlins to a huge underdog victory. Then, in 2004, Pavano pitched so well that he was sixth in Cy Young voting. The Yankees snatched him up in the offseason, inking him to a four year, $40 million deal.

His performance dipped some in 2005, but things really didn’t go off the rails until late June, when shoulder inflammation ended his season. Then, he spent almost all of 2006 rehabbing from a contusion in his buttocks he got in spring training—yes, a butt bruise—as well as back stiffness, a sore triceps, and bone chips in his elbow. On August 28, the Yankees told him they planned to activate him in three days. But, oh, wait! Carl had broken two ribs in a car accident on August 15 and somehow neglected to tell his ballclub this important fact. He didn’t play a single game in 2006.

Two weeks into the 2007 season, Pavano suffered an elbow strain that eventually led to Tommy John surgery. He made no more big-league appearances until late in 2008, by which point his contract was virtually over. He threw just 145⅔ innings for the Yankees in four seasons.

When he returned to the Bronx as a Cleveland Indian the next year, the stadium’s closed captioning on the center field scoreboard made sure even the deaf people in the stands knew what Yankee fans thought of Pavano’s invisible tenure in New York. —Dan Rozenson

10. Mike Sirotka
There are few names in the Blue Jays’ canon that conjure the sheer befuddlement of Mike Sirotka. You probably know why. After winning 20 games with a 4.11 ERA for Toronto in 2000, incumbent ace David Wells was shipped to the White Sox for a package highlighted by Sirotka, a 29-year-old left-hander with a career 4.31 ERA and 5.5 K/9 over 710.1 innings. As it turns out, those numbers would remain stagnant. A wonky shoulder ended Sirotka’s tenure in Toronto before it began, while the deal effectively eroded the relationship between White Sox general manager Kenny Williams, a rookie at the time, and then-Toronto GM Gord Ash, who insisted the White Sox didn’t disclose pertinent information about Sirotka’s health. When the dust finally settled on what would eventually be labeled “Shouldergate,” the Blue Jays found themselves on the short end of the metaphor. Sirotka never pitched another game.

The only retrospective consolation for the Jays is that Sirotka’s absence afforded Toronto an opportunity in 2001 to let a struggling 24-year-old right-hander work his way back to the bigs after posting a 10.64 ERA in 67.2 innings the season prior, earning himself a demotion to the Florida State League. That guy’s name was Roy Halladay. —Jonah Birenbaum

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